MERCEDES BENZ SL600

A FU­TURE CLAS­SIC

New Zealand Classic Car - - Contents - Words: Lach­lan Jones Photos: Adam Croy

LACH­LAN CON­TIN­UES TO DELVE INTO MOD­ERN CLAS­SICS, AND TAKES A LOOK AT ONE OF THE MOST POP­U­LAR MERCEDES NAME PLATES EVER BUILT, THE SL

On our way to shoot this mod­ern clas­sic, we drove past Auck­land’s Eden Park. Thirty years ago this year, that’s where Auck­land played host to the fi­nal of the in­au­gu­ral Rugby World Cup, and a young All Black cap­tain named David Kirk held the cup aloft. This year also marks 30 years since the stock mar­ket crash of 1987, and given a heady mix­ture of pa­tri­otic rugby pride, new, easy money, pos­si­bly some French cham­pagne, and other South Amer­i­can en­hance­ments, there’s no doubt the Eden Park car park (es­pe­cially the box park­ing) fea­tured a good num­ber of Mercedes SLS. Un­doubt­edly a good num­ber of them were the top-of-the-pops SL560 in R109 for­mat.

Stel­lar run

The R109 had a stel­lar run from 1972 to 1989. Of course, by the time pro­duc­tion of the iconic road­ster wrapped up, the R109 looked as if it knew it was time to go. When pro­duc­tion of an all-new SL (R129) be­gan in 1989, there was still a bit of money slosh­ing about from a 1987 hang­over to be spent on the all-new ver­sion. And of course, it would have to be the big-dog SL500. Low and sleek, the new SL screamed money and suc­cess, which had just the de­sired ef­fect.

In 1993 Mercedes re­leased an even more grandiose ver­sion — the SL600, pow­ered by a 6.0-litre 48-valve DOHC V12 pro­duc­ing 290kw (390hp). This com­pared to the SL500’S 5.0-litre V8 pro­duc­ing 234kw (315hp), so a de­cent bump in power, but also an ex­tra 130kg in weight, mean­ing some of that power was negated.

The big­gest dif­fer­ence be­tween the SL500 and the SL600 was its V12 and adap­tive damp­ing sus­pen­sion as stan­dard (avail­able only as an ex­pen­sive and of­ten un­re­li­able op­tion on the SL500). The smooth, low-revving V12 of­fered driv­ers a dif­fer­ent ex­pe­ri­ence in their SLS. Less sport, more cruise was the idea. Sur­pris­ingly, the V8 and V12 vari­a­tions of the SL were only avail­able with a four-speed au­to­matic gear­box (the six-cylin­der cars could be op­tioned with a five-speed).

One step ahead

All of this might make an SL500 driver think twice about the up­grade. Why bother? Of course, the SL600 was not pro­duced for any great per­for­mance or com­fort ben­e­fits over the SL500, but sim­ply to of­fer a car at a higher price point to ap­pease those who wanted to keep one step ahead of the neigh­bours. At a time when BMW was build­ing some of the best M cars it’s ever made (as well as the 850i), and with Lexus en­ter­ing the mar­ket­place with Toy­ota-backed bud­gets and ag­gres­sion, Mercedes-benz needed to make a state­ment in lux­ury, re­fine­ment, and price point. The SL600 achieved that.

And what was that price point? Well, in the US mar­ket the premium for the SL600, over the 500, was a quite un­be­liev­able 30 per cent markup of $32,000. Here in New Zealand, prospec­tive buy­ers were ex­pected to part with the best part of $100k for the priv­i­lege of driv­ing the pres­ti­gious V12.

And the pre­mi­ums didn’t stop there. The big V12 was syn­ony­mous with high ser­vic­ing costs, with­out a record of which val­ues in the sec­ond-hand mar­ket plum­meted. This was less to do with the re­li­a­bil­ity of the V12 than the sheer size of the en­gine. Open­ing the bon­net of our fea­ture car re­vealed pure dark­ness — there was not a crack of light to be seen. The V12 is enor­mous, and this of course meant work­ing on the car was and is dif­fi­cult for me­chan­ics. As an ex­am­ple, the valve cover gas­ket re­place­ment on the SL500 took an es­ti­mated 1.7 hours. On the SL600, 7.6 hours.

Elec­tric ev­ery­thing

Ev­ery­thing in the SL600 was elec­tric, and as any­one who has owned a Euro­pean car built in the 1990s will at­test, elec­tric ev­ery­thing was in an ‘ex­per­i­men­tal’ phase dur­ing this pe­riod, with seem­ingly ev­ery sec­ond per­son on the elec­tronic as­sem­bly line be­ing blind­folded. On a good ver­sion, things will work well. On a not so good ver­sion, they will not. You’ll be able to tell.

But de­spite all of this, the SL600 was, and is, a damned good car. Quick with­out shout­ing about it; sta­ble and steady, it was the ul­ti­mate open-road cruiser that looked as fan­tas­tic on the au­to­bahn as it does parked out­side An­toines.

Fea­ture Car

We met the owner of our fea­tured SL600, Eric Mahoney, at EC Mercedez in Auck­land. The SL has spent a good amount of time with Emil and his team, this time to as­sess an elec­tron­ics is­sue. Eric has owned the car for a num­ber of years, hav­ing bought it from his brother, who was the sec­ond owner. Eric adores the SL, and it takes pride of place amongst a few other in­ter­est­ing ve­hi­cles. His pas­sion for the ocean means the SL some­times plays sec­ond fid­dle, but it’s al­ways nice to know there’s a piece of Ger­man mus­cle sit­ting in the garage when con­di­tions on the Gulf are par­tic­u­larly un­invit­ing. Thanks to Eric for get­ting the SL out for a drive on a beau­ti­ful day.

The Mercedes SL, in new or clas­sic form, con­tin­ues to be a mem­ber of many of our ul­ti­mate garages. The mod­ern Gull­wing SLS and more re­cently the AMG-GT prob­a­bly over­took the SL for a while, but that clas­sic roaster shape con­tin­ues to prove its met­tle, with the cur­rent king of the hill be­ing the Amg-built SL65. Still pow­ered by an enor­mous V12 en­gine, the mod­ern ver­sion puts out 463kw (621hp).

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